Puerto Rico’s National Forest Faces Long Road to Recovery

It may be fifty years before El Yunque is fully back to normal after hurricane damage


Forest maintenance workers Joel Flores (left) and Luigie Ramírez (right) work on the restoration of El Yunque National Forest.
Forest maintenance workers Joel Flores (left) and Luigie Ramírez (right) work on the restoration of El Yunque National Forest.

After having lost all its foliage and between 30 and 40 percent of its trees as a result of Hurricane Maria, the El Yunque National Forest in northeastern Puerto Rico is finally green again. Six months ago, the forest was mostly brown — the color of trees stripped to their roots and of grassy areas turned muddy. But now, trees and plants that looked as if they had been razed by a large-scale fire have grown new leaves, and flowers have even blossomed.

“When people ask when will it heal, when will it be back to what it was before, I tell them that this is a natural process, a routine cleaning that gives some species a chance to grow,” says Sharon Wallace, El Yunque’s forest supervisor since 2015. “This is a good thing. Nature is doing its job.”

But while the forest is vibrant again, and visitors are welcomed in some areas, it may take decades for the forest to fully recover. Wallace says that young trees that survived will need between 50 and 60 years to reach the maturity of the ones pummeled by the winds and rain brought on by Maria.

El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the United States national forest system, normally receives between 700,000 and 900,000 annual visitors, according to forest officials. But this year it’s likely to be much less.

“One of our busiest seasons, December to January, was still affected by widespread power outages, closed resorts and hotels, limited cruise ship schedules and time in port, and the presence of response and recovery personnel,” says Michael Crump, one of the forest’s supervisors. “We are moving into another traditionally busy season, the ‘spring break’ period. There has been a pickup in attendance and visitation by the public, especially tourists from off-island. The power situation is more stable now, and a few hotels and resorts have begun to start managing a more normal client schedule.”

Unlike other forests that have experienced a natural disaster, Crump says, El Yunque’s situation is unique because of the island’s small land base (approximately 30,000 acres), widespread damage to the island’s infrastructure, including loss of power in most areas, and limited access to the area, which delayed sending needed supplies.

“Other national forests that experience disasters usually do not have so many of these compounding circumstances to address at one time,” Crump says.

Although it is one of the smallest forests in the United States, El Yunque is one of the most diverse in terms of flora and fauna, and even boasts a number of endemic species. El Yunque is home to more than 800 plant and 240 native tree species and 88 species of flora that are unique to the forest.

Eight of the 88 species of endemic flora are also endangered. A recent evaluation of the forest after the hurricane by ecologists determined all flora species survived the cyclone. At the moment, the specialists are establishing methods to restore and manage the flora.

El Yunque’s wild Puerto Rican parrot population was not so fortunate. Only 3 of the 56 native specimens survived, according to officials. Biologists had spent years rebuilding the population of the endangered Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), specific to the region, which had only had 13 specimens at its lowest count in the 1970s.

“It is a hard blow for the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program after so many years of effort,” laments Jafet Vélez, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS.)

Vélez adds, “As biologists, we understand that hurricanes are a part of the Caribbean’s ecosystem and are able to explain them very well from a theoretical point of view. However, the emotional part is something else. The fruit of the labor of so many years is lost.”

The good news for this species, and for the program, is that the wild population of parrots living in Utuado, a town in the island’s mountainous area, mostly survived — 104 of the 150 parrots are still alive.

In captivity, 232 parrots live in El Yunque and 200 in Utuado. All were protected and survived, according to forest officials.

Still, the 2018 release of captive parrots into the wild has been suspended.

“We had to temporarily halt the releases while we assess the effects of the hurricane,” Vélez explains. “Also, we have to see how the forest behaves, how the vegetation recovers, and how much food is available.”

As for the forest itself, the biggest changes — imperceptible to a common observer — are reflected in El Yunque’s canopy.

“The canopy is not closed, and it will not close in a homogeneous manner,” explains ecologist Ricardo Santiago, who works in the forest. “A closed canopy indicates a mature forest. The status of the canopy greatly influences the regeneration of species and the amount of light reaching the forest floor.”

He adds: “This definitely opens up the possibility for trees that did not receive light before to have a chance to grow.”

The open canopy allows specialists to monitor invasive species and prevent them from spreading, and can allow specialists to establish controls if necessary.

“We monitor any species capable of expanding and displacing the habitat of native species,” says Santiago.

Wallace believes the signs of recovery in the forest ecosystem are so positive that El Yunque would be open to the public by now if that was the only factor.

However, the U.S. Forest Service is working hard to rebuild the forest’s infrastructure, particularly roads affected by mudslides and sinkholes, as well as repairing piping that provides drinking water.

“The ecosystem was stronger than human-made systems,” Wallace says. “Repairing the human economy and our social systems will take longer.”

Twenty percent of the country’s potable water comes from El Yunque, which according to forest officials supports nine dams. Río Grande and parts of Naguabo and Canóvanas, all municipalities covered by the forest, use water from El Yunque.

Within a 24-hour period during the storm, El Yunque received 44 inches of rain, according to forest officials. Normally, the forest gets more than 120 inches a year. Between 40 and 50 landslides were reported on its main roads, according to forest officials.

The repair work is being done jointly by the Federal Highway Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works (known by its Spanish acronym DTOP). Congress has allocated $60 million to repair and rehabilitate the forest, according to Wallace.

“Fixing the roads will take a long time. We are not going to wait for all of it to be ready to open,” says Wallace. For now, visitors can travel all the way up to the forest’s La Coca Falls.

Wallace adds that the rehabilitation efforts are considered part of the island’s economic reconstruction.

“We are going to focus on putting all the money we can here in Puerto Rico, here with the people of Puerto Rico,” she says.

In fact, more than 200 local workers have been hired so far to carry out a variety of tasks.

By February, $11 million and more than 1,000 hours had been spent on cleaning up debris and clearing roads, trails, and recreation sites, according to Wallace. The wreckage left behind by the hurricane — most of it vegetation — is left for the forest to reabsorb. The forest’s administration expects to find a buyer to purchase discarded exotic wood — such as mahogany — that fell to the floor.

The forest’s El Portal visitor center was badly damaged and will be completely renovated. The administration will use this opportunity to perform upgrades that had been planned before the hurricane.

“When it [the visitor center] reopens, it will have new exhibits and will be more oriented toward the community,” says Wallace. “We may be able to have a local fruit market and booths for artisans. We want visitors to leave with a good impression of what Puerto Rican culture is.”

Wallace estimates that the recovery work will take between one and two years.

In the meantime, forest officials will establish three small visitor centers called “portalitos” — “little portals” — that will be located in Barrio Palmer in Río Grande, on Road 186 to El Verde, and in the neighboring town of Naguabo. The idea is to keep people informed of what’s happening in El Yunque, and to allow vendors who sell forest-themed merchandise to reopen their businesses.

“I would like people to understand that they are helping the recovery if they come here,” said tourist Pamela Kavanaugh-Clark, who was honeymooning in the forest with her partner, Cassie.

The couple was staying at a guest house that had no power and required the use of a generator. Yet they happily strolled around La Coca Falls.

Said Cassie, “It is still beautiful.”

To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.

CORRECTION: Because of translation and editing errors, this article initially referred to El Yunque as part of the U.S. national park system, rather than the national forest system. The Voice regrets the mistake.